Archaeologist, historian and art historian Anna Marangou has had three husbands and three stabs at becoming mayor of Nicosia but it is her passion for the island that drives her. THEO PANAYIDES meets her
I meet Anna Marangou a couple of days after St. Anna’s Day, and she tells me that she baked kourambiedes – traditional biscuits, which she makes with olive oil and walnuts – for her nameday. A sign on the front door of her house, a renovated old house on a sleepy side-street, reads: “Nana’s Kitchen, Open 24 Hours. Where Memories are Made, and Grandkids are Spoiled”. It’s all very cosy. But she also takes a phone call just before we sit down to talk, and the names of some very public figures are mentioned – then, when I ask what the phone call was about, she giggles and says it’s “top secret”.
In short, she’s very active, and not just baking biscuits and spoiling grandkids. When she spoke at TEDx last November, her self-penned bio admitted that she has “a lot of friends and a lot of enemies”. She’s an archaeologist, art historian and historian – but she’s also run for office three times, and twice come close (in one case, desperately close) to becoming Mayor of Nicosia. Her current venture is called Historic Cyprus (www.historiccyprus.com), a series of tours where she leads small groups around the sites of our cultural heritage, walking and talking all the while. She gets all sorts of people on the tours, from Danish tourists to architecture students, but “the majority are people from Nicosia who know me, basically”. She’s a well-known name.
“I’ve had a very interesting life,” she declares at one point. “I don’t regret any bit of my life. Everything was an amazing experience to me”. Those last words – ‘to me’ – may be significant. The stories Anna tells are always “amazing” and “incredible”, even when they’re not so incredible. Thus, for instance, the story of her parents, a Greek girl who fled the Nazis and an Austrian-educated Cypriot doctor who opened a clinic in Limassol – and met his future wife in Alexandria, where he’d gone to look for staff and she was studying to be a nurse. It’s a nice story, but it’s not like they met in Polynesia or something (granted, any kind of foreign meeting was unusual in those pre-globalised times). That’s not the point, however. The point is that Anna pours all her passion for the characters – all her love for her parents – into the story, colouring its bare contours with the fervent emotions they arouse in her.
She’s passionate, openly so, about the things and people who are close to her. It may or may not be self-centred – yet her passion is her most defining trait; she wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s 63, with brown eyes, high cheekbones, silvery hair and very clear skin; she dresses simply, and talks about anything. She talks about her two daughters, Gabriella and Aspasia (both now in their 30s), and how different they are from each other. She talks about her past, and the negative feedback she’s received from a few ill-wishers over Historic Cyprus (more on this later). Above all she’ll talk about Niki, her older sister, a well-known writer and poet who died in a road accident in Egypt two years ago. “She was my closest friend,” says Anna, her voice sad but steady. “She was a really gifted person, I’m not half as gifted as Niki was. And she was there for me, practically all my life. She was a friend but also a mentor, and also a person that I cherished very much – and her loss, and the way that it happened, gave our whole family a lot of grief.”
There were three Marangou sisters (the youngest, Marina, now lives in Australia). Dad – “a very special person” – moved his clinic to Nicosia in 1953, soon after Anna was born, and became a renowned physician, but never forgot his love of Austrian culture and German discipline, importing German nannies (and a few Irish ones) to take care of his girls. “I had a beautiful upbringing, and I’m very grateful to my parents. Because they gave us the world, they gave us languages and culture, and they really opened our eyes,” she says – but also admits, almost in the same breath, that “we grew up in a very patriarchal way”.
Father knew best, and the girls had no say in the matter when the time came to go to university. Each was shipped to a country where Father had friends who could act as chaperones – which is how Anna ended up in Belgium (one of dad’s chums was the Austrian ambassador there), at the Catholic University of Leuven.
It was the late 60s, Europe in the midst of sexual revolution. Anna was chomping at the bit, having emerged from an all-girls school and a very strict home where fraternising with boys was forbidden. Unsurprisingly, “all hell broke loose”. She was married and divorced three times by the time she was 40 – her first husband a Belgian aristocrat, the second a prominent politician, the third a “real Cypriot Paphian” who introduced her to the distinctive culture of the island’s west coast. Like she said, it’s been an interesting life.
It wouldn’t take much psychology to conclude that young Anna was drawn to high-profile alpha males as a way of working through her often-stormy relationship with a much-loved but domineering father – and another such man was her boss, Lellos Demetriades, the long-serving Mayor of Nicosia with whom she embarked on perhaps the most fruitful period of her life, the 15 years (1976-91) when she worked as the Municipality’s cultural officer and helped transform post-invasion Nicosia.
Famagusta Gate became a centre for events and exhibitions, a former warehouse became Theatro Ena, the place where garbagemen parked their trucks became what’s now the Melina Mercouri Hall. Lellos was in charge, and “a great teacher to me” – but Anna was nobody’s stooge. She recalls her job interview with the mayor and his councillors, and Demetriades asking the young mother (presumably with the condescension that came naturally to men at that time and place) what she planned to do about her kid if she had to stay late at the office. “And, in a very arrogant manner, I looked back at him and said: ‘That’s none of your business’.”
She recalls another thing about that interview, her sister Niki begging her to “put a long skirt on, tie your hair at the back, look decent”. She was something of a wild child, a young girl with ideas, just back from five years in Belgium; her marriage had collapsed for all sorts of reasons – mainly loneliness, and homesickness, and being “stranded in a faraway place” speaking Greek to baby Gabriella – so she got in her car and drove from Brussels to Athens, with her daughter and a dog named Piccolo.
People are always telling her how to dress, it seems. She recalls another story, a TV debate on CyBC when she ran for Mayor against her old boss. She’d borrowed a blazer from a friend (her own wardrobe wasn’t up to the task) and done well in the debate, or so she thought – only to learn that dozens of viewers had phoned in to note that her blazer had a button missing, many of them adding that a woman who couldn’t take care of herself could hardly be trusted to take care of the city.
That’s one of her favourite stories (she’s mentioned it in other interviews), and I think I see why: it promotes the narrative of Anna the outsider, the unconventional woman, her ideas ignored and misunderstood by people who care only about surfaces. She doesn’t mind being thought of as eccentric (“en pelli, i Marangou!” she imagines them saying: “She’s nuts, that Marangou!”), she may even do it consciously: “If people think of you as not being the norm,” she explains, “that’s a passport to freedom. You can do a lot of things when people [think] ‘Don’t argue with her’”. Trouble is, the superficial types are hard to defeat – as evidenced by Anna’s greatest nemesis, the 38-million-euro plan to revamp Eleftheria Square in Nicosia or, as she puts it, “that stupid work of Mrs Hadid”.
Mrs Hadid is Zaha Hadid, the famous Iraqi-born architect whose design for an elaborate bridge across the Pedieos river (“that huge concrete thing”) Anna Marangou has been fighting tooth and nail for the past decade. She’s collected signatures, given press conferences, gone to the European Parliament; all in vain, at least so far. It’s hard to avoid a sense that the plan was selected for superficial reasons, because Hadid is a ‘name’ in the world of architecture.
After all, as Anna points out with a touch of weariness, her design hides the old Venetian wall that’s southern Nicosia’s only real landmark and turns the mediaeval moat into a concrete-covered gully that’s going to be sweltering in summer, needing to be cooled at a huge environmental cost. “What they’re doing now is criminal for the city,” she concludes fierily.
People don’t listen, alas. Some have called her reactionary, an enemy of progress. Others go even further. The walks at Historic Cyprus cover the whole island (inevitably, since most of our historical landmarks are in the occupied north), indeed Anna doesn’t even say ‘occupied Nicosia’ when on a walk, “I use the words ‘on the northern bank of the Pedieos river’”.
This has annoyed various pseudo-patriots who’ve chimed in on her Facebook page, asking how much the Turks are paying her – a charge that clearly rankles, not just because it’s (obviously) untrue but because her whole motive in doing the walks is patriotic, stemming from her belief that we need to mend the scar caused by the invasion. “And mend it how? Mend it through culture. Because I firmly believe that this is one island.”
The walks, her opposition to Hadid’s project, her objection to putting antiquities under glass and forgetting about them: it all comes from the same place – from Anna’s deep conviction that we need to connect with our history, all of it, not just whatever’s convenient. We need to experience our monuments, not hide them under concrete or glass or the politics of the Green Line.
Her biggest paradox is perhaps that she’s European by upbringing yet beguiled by the Oriental side of Cyprus history, the side that’s usually glossed over. “I’m deeply a person who loves the East,” she tells me – then later: “I’ve travelled a lot in Turkey, to understand what Cyprus is all about”. We’re pretty much Arabs, I admit; “We’re pretty much Syrians,” she corrects me – but we’re also a mix, brought together by commerce and compromise. She always likes to point out the various old neighbourhoods, when doing a walk in Famagusta: “This is the Jewish Quarter, there’s the Orthodox Quarter, there’s the Latin Quarter, over there is the Armenian Quarter, over there is the Carmelite Quarter”. Her audience is flabbergasted.
Anna Marangou may be unfashionable at the moment. Gazing to the east is politically incorrect and un-European. More importantly, the whole idea of passionate attachment to the history of one place may seem outdated, now that youngsters live online and consider themselves to be citizens of the world. Yet roots are important. She felt that in Belgium, the need to connect with her roots – and her life now is also very rooted, in structure and habit. “I have a secret house where I go every Friday,” she smiles – a house by the beach in Pomos where she swims (she’s a great swimmer) and walks with her dogs.
Then every Wednesday she meets with her ‘gang’, her friends (most were also Niki’s friends, and helped each other through their mutual grief); they talk, and sit by the fire, and “I do my Wednesday soups”. Their emails to each other always have to be in rhyming couplets. Like every gang, they have their little rituals.
She doesn’t travel much anymore – “I’ve passed the age; I’ve been to Fiji, Australia, you name it” – but her energy is undiminished. She can (and does) swim for miles, not to mention walking tourists through Vouni or Salamis or Saint Hilarion – talking for hours on end – every week or so. “I’ve got my father’s stubbornness, and his research spirit,” she sighs, “but I’ve got my mother’s energy”.
Time marches on, of course. “Sometimes my kids tell me, ‘come on, relax, finish now. You’re 63, let other people do it!’. It’s true, I have to let go. But I feel that I can still be around … I have a way of talking about history which I think attracts people”. That’s not all she’s good at. She recently wrote her first play, as well as a children’s book for her granddaughter (also named Anna); it’s called The Tomato Plant That Went to the Moon and it’s going to be published this year, with all proceeds going to charity. Could 2015 also be the year when our island becomes “one island”, and Eleftheria Square gets a new plan? If so, there’s going to be champagne with those kourambiedes next St. Anna’s Day.